Friday, October 28, 2005

Beevangelism Revisited

A local food coop has invited me to contribute a beekeeping article to their newsletter, maybe even a recurring column. So, bee-brained as I am, it seemed impossible to resist. Your comments are also welcome. Here's what I wrote, and I will let you know how it was received:

City Bees: Urban Honey is Twice as Sweet

By [Me]

When people think of honeybees, they usually summon up images of orchards and farm fields, old farmers in straw hats, and buzzy country afternoons. Would you be surprised to learn that highly prized honey is produced above Manhattan apartment buildings, on the roof of the Paris Opera, by London artists in a flat overlooking Tower Bridge, and right here around town homes and condos inside [deleted]?

Urban honey may seem like a contradiction in terms, but there are many ways in which the diversity and the energy of our densely-packed communities can offer a wonderful home for bees. Bees demand little space, and managing them is a matter of learning relatively simple basics … and then holding on for a lifetime of learning.

Bees in the city have access to more types of plants over a more extended growing season, and having happy honeybees around can add bloom to your cherry or pear tree (and fruit to your harvest basket). The honey produced by urban bees is also highly prized, featuring a wider variety of hard-to-find floral flavors. Honey produced by the London Beekeeper's Association is actually very difficult to get in Britain for this reason!

Much of the honey produced for sale in this country features a single crop name on the label: clover, orange blossom, peach or apple, for example. This is possible because in most farming areas a hive can be placed within acres and acres of a single crop. This is good for the crop, good for the farmer, and not bad for the honey consumer, either. It's also the logical result of the main contribution of honeybees: pollination of the food crops upon which we all depend, crops that are usually produced in large agricultural operations.

A bee in the city does emerge from the hive each morning to find itself surrounded by fields and fields of a single type of flower, however. They have farther to fly. But on the plus side, the urban honeybee is surrounded by gardens, window boxes, parks, and public plantings with a rotating variety of nectar-producing delights. Like the variety of people who live in a thriving community, there are more kinds of green living things crammed into more unusual places, each doing their own individual thing, contributing to the tapestry of life around us.

The bees often get a longer blooming season in the city, and the honey gets a complex pedigree. For simplicity's sake, it's usually labeled "wildflower," and I tell my friends that it means that the beekeeper has no idea where it comes from. This, however, is only partly true.

In our area, beekeepers often mention the slogan, "Take a Bee to Lunch: Plant a Flower," but if you want to feed the whole hive, plant a tree! In [our community] and all over the [metropolitan] area, our lovely tree-lined streets are a million-mile smorgasbord for bees, and when each neighborhood tree flowers, you can see the nectar change within the hive.

For instance, when the holly tree in my neighbor's yard bloomed this Spring, my two rooftop hives were suddenly filled with combs full of crystal clear nectar that smelled like those heavenly (but hard to spot) holly flowers. Come May, however, the Tulip Poplar blooms, and its honey fills the colony with thousands of cells of a darker, delicious gold.

Finally, urban beekeeping has given me a tie back to nature that has changed my world. Walking down the street means a wall to wall survey of what is in bloom, how the weather has been trending, and who is working in each blossom. Looking for honeybees, I've become enamored of native bumblebees and spent my first real time with butterflies in 30 years.

And all this is just the beekeeper's share of the benefit! You may have heard that honeybees are under siege, and this is true. Pests like the varroa mite have killed thousands of colonies of bees since they first arrived 20 or so years ago, and the number of honeybees in the United States has been in steady decline ever since. Many beekeepers have retired, and the large commercial operations that facilitated the mites' spread represent a larger and larger proportion of what remains.

But the good news is that beekeeping is beginning to appeal to a new generation of hobbyists who keep only a few hives, a population that can be closely watched and carefully maintained. The hobbyist beekeeper, spread in small numbers across all kinds of communities, offers a reserve of preservation, pollination, and environmental health that benefits us all. That's news that goes down well with a teaspoon of honey.

If you are interested in becoming a beekeeper, you can contact one of several local beekeeping associations, and take a free "short course" early next Spring. I'm a member of the [Deleted] Beekeepers, www.[deleted], but we'd be pleased to direct you to the club nearest you. You can also contact me via my beekeeping blog at

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Mighty Mite-y

varroa mite at 60xYou non-beekeepers out there probably get bored out of your minds by my constant discussions of the ways of mites and men, but perhaps this picture might make the point. The nightmarish bug above, which looks like a hairy-legged lentil at 60 times magnification, is actually a varroa mite — a critter that lives to for two purposes: to suck the life out of developing bees, and then make more of itself. It's not much more than a grasping mouth and reproductive system with a poorly thought out transportation arrangement.

This is the bug, actually an arachnid, that you heard about on the news, or NPR or the paper. It killed about 60% of the honeybees in California last winter, and is the reason why feral honeybees (ones that don't have beekeepers) basically exist no longer in this country. The current rumor is that it jumped to honeybees from some other host bee by travelling to this country in a bouquet of cut flowers. Folks around here like to blame Florida, saying it's the most probable point of entry (since so many other invasive critters and plants got in that way), but it must be said that there is now almost nowhere in the world without the nasty varroa mite.

This is the reason why many beekeepers gave up the hobby in the past 15-20 years: it is a hard and heartbreaking fight. The medications can be rude, over not-very-much time drug resistance grows, and then you need to use something else. Me, I am using an approach that only just got approved in all the surrounding states, and it is less toxic but much more work. And on Sunday, when weather and the instructions and my conscience dictated I had to go in, round two of the anti-varroa labor took place.

My order of operations, for both colonies, was:
  1. Attempt to block view from nosy neighbors by deploying deck umbrella on its side (as if I was trying to dry it out);
  2. Open hive top, check on syrup consumption in feeder;
  3. Remove feeder and 2-3 supers of honey, cover with cloths to prevent robbing. Give a quick look to see if stores were still adequate;
  4. Once down to the brood level, pick out and set aside the first packets of ApiLife VAR. Take new packets out of baggy, and set in four corners above brood;
  5. Reassemble; and
  6. In an unplanned brain wave, check out the contents of the bottom boards below the hives.

The good thing is that I got lots of pictures this time (and you can see them via the link at right). The bad thing is that my wifty hopes that maybe I did not actually have an infestation got kicked around by the evidence of mite death you can see already. That's how I got the picture above: fishing dead mites from beneath the colonies (in this case, from Wilde).

This is yet another occasion where, being a beginner, I am not totally sure what I am seeing, and it will be hard to look up some kind of reliable reference point for comparison. You usually estimate your mite count by conducting a special test of mite drop over a few days onto a clean surface, or by doing something called a "sugar roll." I used the bottom board test, but knew I would treat anyway because my bees are under stress and I am error prone. It just seemed safer.

Sunday's information would not constitute much of a mite population count. Happening upon dead mites — over an indeterminate amount of time, on a cluttered work surface, after getting partway through a cycle of treatment — won't tell you many specifics...but you will know that they were there.

Therefore I am glad to be going through the bother of putting together meds, taking apart colonies, and fussing over the girls. I checked to see if they had slurped up their 2:1 syrup with the Nosema meds (yes), whether there was an evidence of robbing (no), and what seemed to be occupying them most (bringing in pollen). The bees were not aggressive at all, but I still kept my gloves on because I had to handle meds.

Today, when I went up on the roof (in the 53 degree F rain) the girls were all inside, no bees flying at all. Originally, I'd hoped to do the work today, and to have my friend Kim and her mom stop by to both help and get a look (there is some chance that I'd get a beevangelical convert out of this, I thought). Looking at the weather, next Monday would be my best timed shot, if the temp is high and the sky is dry.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Medication Day

There's a bit of hesitation as I write this, mostly because a lot of beekeepers out there would just throw up their hands, saying it is too late for me to be trying to do some of these end of season tasks...but I think I disagree. I also think I must play the hand that nature has dealt, so here we are.

map of wilde colonyBeekeepers often refer to September 1st as the "Beekeeper New Year," a time to start putting the bees to bed for this year, and to make preparations for next. These tasks include checking to see whether the hives seem to have stored adequate honey for the winter – around here that means at least 60, and as much as 90 pounds – placing menthol to drive away tracheal mites, deciding upon and executing a treatment for varroa mites (those are the ones you might have heard about on the news), and pouring in sugar syrup that contains a medication for Nosema, a digestive tract disease that sort of gnaws away at the health and productivity of a colony.

The Nosema medication is an antibiotic, Fumidil-B. I am somewhat unhappy about this, not much wanting to get involved in chemicals and so on whether in the garden, the dog, or the husband. The disease that requires the med itself is an outgrowth of the stress that bees endure in the winter: they do not defecate at temps below 50 degrees, and the stress of holding waste can promote digestive disease. Fumidil targets a microbe (I think) that loves being in a crowded bee gut. It's a powder that you mix with a couple of gallons of 2 parts sugar to one part water (a heavy mixture). I planned on finishing each hive visit with a feeder fill-up with this stuff.

map of twain colonyThe menthol all went in in mid-September, just before I found out that it was potentially OK to skip it. I chose ApiLifeVAR as my varroa treatment, mostly because it is not an antibiotic per se but a concentration of essential oils (thyme, eucalyptus, menthol). It's organic and non-polluting. The varroa treatment comes in wafers that must not touch bare skin, and which needed to be enclosed in little screen envelopes to keep the bees out of direct contact, too. So I had a bit of homework to do before placing it. And putting it in the hives would be a chore in itself: you can see from the green areas in the illustrations where the wafres need to go, directly above the brood nest. The first, and smaller, colony is Wilde, my girls who have struggled along this year. The second illustration is much-larger Twain, rampantly healthy and tending to rapacious behavior.

I went into Wilde first, thinking to start with the lesser weight and work, and move up to the bigger boxes on Twain. I was happily surprised to find an entire capped deep of honey on Wilde: this means I do not need to transfer resources from the other colony over! Hurrah! It also means I could have extracted honey for real this year, but what the hell.

The work in Wilde took less than 20 minutes, I think. The girls were quite pacific, and that technique (learned from MaryEllen) of throwing a cloth over each box as it was moved off the hive really seems to help. I burrowed down to the brood nest, placed the little screened packets, and reassembled. When I put the feeder back on top, bees crowded around my hands and the bucket, tongues stuck out, no mean buzzing. (There are different tones and behaviors of buzzing, and these girls were as mellow as all get out). My gloved hands (had to use the latter, when dealing with meds) were covered with happy bees licking off the drops of sugar syrup. Yum.

Twain was rowdier, probably because the smoke did not reach the inside boxes as well. Got stung once, but it might have been me mashing the bee against my leg as I worked. All told, they were WAY less upset at this hive manipulation than anything I have done in months. They seemed really hungry, too. though the boxes were full of honey. Twain took me more like forty minutes...those boxes are so heavy, and it is so easy to squash tons of bees as I grapple for a handhold and turn about. There were some truly mad mad mad bees at Twain, but they dropped pursuit long before I got back to the deck table where I put away my tools and wash my hands, etc.

Mostly they seem to be settling down for the season, and I plan on bringing them some more syrup when I come back in a week or so to replenish the ApiLife Var wafers. Now I need a shower, and I have a husbandly offer of lunch. I, too, can use a bit of autumn nourishment.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Bathroom Bees

dying bee in my handThis blog has gone post-less this weekend, in part because the beekeeper has been a bit listless, and in part because – right after Rocky's departure – it proceeded to rain, and rain, and rain.

From a beekeeping standpoint, this is mostly OK. We had 60 days of total drought, and the rain gives us our last chance for any natural nectar flow that might be out there before the temperatures finally fall into the 50s. The bees get a bit frazzled after a couple of days, though. Some of the more anxious ones seem to be the eldest, the workers who have almost no hormones left for in-the-hive work. If a break comes in the rain, it seems like a few try to fly out, and are often surprised before they can get back in. We learned this because some storm-tossed bees shelter under the edges of the skylights on the roof, and discovered how to crawl inside through little cracks of which we were unaware.

We end up with bathroom bees, as well as a caulking and sealing chore on the to-do list for when those temps do fall.

The bee above appeared in our bathtub this morning. I tried to feed her a little water and honey, but it appears to be no-go. Four other bees turned up, mostly livelier, some hungrier, all released out of the back door. Bathroom bees are, perhaps wrong headedly, kind of an up moment in my day. After all the aggression in late summer, it makes me feel better to hold a bee and a q-tip with water on one end, a drop of honey on another, and offer up a snack. I only use my own honey, that little bit that got entered in the fair. Good hygiene, doncha know. It's a nice quiet moment, and I keep them around until I know the temperature is not bee-fatal and the break in the rain is real.

There is a down side to all the rain, of course. The bees are getting an early start eating their winter stores at a time when they are less likely to be able to replenish them, and I need to get into the hives to place the last medications of the season: stuff for Nosema and those cursed Varroa mites. The temperature trend printed in the paper says I still have a little time, but they also said we would have some rain in September.

But rainy days are, in the end, days of peace and replenishment, and a time to think. And the bees have affected how I think about the lives of individual buzzing and breathing and barking things. Sometimes those drops of rain are excellent cover for how I feel about the whole thing, and sometimes they just seem to make things a deeper, richer green.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Life and Death Outside the Hive

rocky at sunset October 3 2005Romantic notions about life and death would be, I thought, the first things to fall under siege with this beekeeping thing. I was not conceding the outcome of this hard-edged enlightenment, but admitting the obvious: I live in the city. I live in a world where most of the creatures are either imperilled wild things or treasured pets. Being a beekeeper is like playing god, not like playing parent to a pet. I have to choose who dies sometimes. I hate this. I do it. It's not routine, and I don't feel good about it. But it's not keeping me up at night, and I feel like there is a lesson in it. The upshot is not about being hard-hearted, it's about the unconceivably numerous ocean of life, the sheer numbers of living things coursing around us, and how impossible it is for any one living thing to see the whole and understand what it happening to it. In one case, an early death, in another, an extended life. No reason given.

Tonight my husband and I will have trouble sleeping. We chose death for Rocky today, and it needs to be said in that bald-faced way because he died when we said he should, via euthanasia. One could say we killed him, though that does not fit right, either. We cut the death that was coming off at the pass, at an hour short of sunset.

What keeps a girl awake here are memories of all the times we were not good parents, where we lost our patience or jerked the leash or dealt out discipline that now makes me cringe. Rocky was a thieving, lusty, greedy, smart, passionate, loving, and sometimes violent dog. His aging looks like, with great pain right now, a process of his losing one great love and then another. First, no longer able to jump on the bed and jockey for position, later not able to climb upstairs to the bedroom, followed by an inability to compete effectively for table scraps, and finally stuck at home when the park (and his adoring fan base) was just too far away. At the end, barely able to creep out to the backyard, swaying on failing legs.

We told our friends this tonight: as we prepared to leave for the veterinarian's office this afternoon, he slept in my arms a while. As he slept, he dreamt of running, clearly at full tilt. I could not remember the last time he ran: the vet later told me his arthritis was diagnosed in 2001.

I don't believe that when I crush a bee, or blow out the candle of Rocky's life, that those sparks of vitality are automatically lit again in some other place. I have been thinking more about the way light shimmers on a lake at sunset, one glint shining and blinking out, replaced by another. Some people talk about a sea of life of which we are a part, and to which we are returned. I still hope, whatever follows this, that there is some way I will feel that Rocky spirit again. Is there a way to be in *that* light again?